My grandmother was an avid cook although not necessarily a good one. She grew up in an oppressed area where she learned to eat things pulled hastily from the ground, sometimes without lighting a fire to mellow them, and then consumed on the run.
As a result, she didn’t bake well in spite of entertaining a delightful romance with sweets. Did you know that a sugar cube held between your teeth could sweeten the bitterest brew of coffee? Or that a cookie baked until it’s hard enough to break a tooth can be a soothingly sweet when it’s dipped into hot tea before eating? My grandmother knew these things well.
She also knew that one of the most frugal and nutritious soups one can make is a good root based borscht. Using a beetroot, which contributes the signature deep red color and some carrot , another sweet root, my grandmother built the basis of her soup.
She stood in her tiny kitchen with a cutting board and an old, yet sharp, knife and chopped those roots into tiny pieces. The carrots were the size of something between a dice and a mince while the beetroot was a slightly larger cube– and occasionally julienned depending upon her mood.
She then made a chiffonade of cabbage and onions. She did not use the flanken like the other grandmothers I knew but she did include her own homemade beef stock from her stewed beef dishes to the soup.
The result was a delectable combination of roots, broth and vinegar that was stewed on the stove for a couple of hours and then served in small bowls with big spoons and a dollop of sour cream whether you wanted it or not.
Here, decades later, is my rendition of my Grandmothers beet borscht with beets and carrots from our yard. Everything else was homegrown, homemade or locally purchased.
Recipe, roughly translated:
2 large beets (equivalent of 2 cups)
1 medium carrot, diced into small, very small pieces (about ¾ cup after chopping)
1 large onion, chiffonade slices (at least 1 cup)
1 wedge of cabbage, chiffonade, (equivalent of just over a cup measured)
Approximately 2 cups of beef broth
(you can use chicken but it isn’t as rich or vegetable for a vegetarian meal)
Approximately 1-2 tablespoons of sherry or sherry vinegar
(Red wine vinegar works in a pinch)
Freshly ground pepper and salt (heavy on the pepper)
Sauté one tablespoon of fat (olive oil, butter, beef fat or rendered chicken fat) over a medium flame. Add the roots and onions. After they soften, about 10 minutes depending on your stove, add the broth, cabbage, and vinegar. Bring this mixture to a boil then turn it down to simmer for 30-45 minutes. The time variation is proportional to the size of your root pieces. Smaller pieces require less time, larger pieces require more time.
When finished, season the whole pot with freshly ground pepper and salt. Serve with a sturdy, high quality sour cream and big spoons. She always threw a pinch of salt over her shoulder before eating and said a silent prayer. We never knew what she said but the meal always seemed blessed with love.